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Biographies of Famous Painters in Comics: What Becomes of the Paintings?

By Thierry Groensteen

I don’t know if the phenomenon is as noteworthy in other countries, but in France, it has been apparent for about ten years now that one particular comics genre has been very much in favor, namely biographies of the most famous painters in the history of fine art. Picasso, Modigliani, Kahlo, Van Gogh, Dalí, Pascin, Gauguin, Chagall, Klee, Rembrandt, Munch, Goya, Schiele, Hokusai, Bourdelle, and others, have had their life stories told in comic books or graphic novels. This vogue for comics biography has been extended to key figures in other fields: musicians (Glenn Gould, Robert Johnson, “Mama Cass” and all the jazz men and women included in the series “BD jazz”), scientists (Marie Curie, Darwin, Einstein, and Freud), philosophers (Marx, Nietzsche, and Sartre), writers (Rimbaud, François Villon, and Virginia Woolf), politicians (Christine Brisset, de Gaulle, and Jaurès), sportsmen and women (Muhammad Ali, Ayrton Senna, and Zidane), not to mention great historical figures (Alexandre, Jeanne d’Arc, Charlemagne, Napoléon, and Vercingétorix) and many more.

There is no doubt that we are witnessing a publishing gold rush. Glénat has made this official with the creation of the series “Ils ont fait l’histoire” [“They Made History”] and, in 2015, of a second series, “Les Grands Peintres” [“The Great Painters”], with a projected list of thirty titles in three years. Maximilien Chailleux, who runs the collection, explains that the books are not classical biographies, but aim instead to “tell a story that takes place at a specific moment in the life of a painter.”

A comics biography of an artist, someone who has—by definition—created images, gives rise to a conundrum that does not exist in the case of any other category of biography. Given that it is not possible to tell the story of an artist’s life without referring to their artistic work, the genre implies that certain paintings (since I will limit myself here to painters) will necessarily be presented within the narrative. Among all the questions facing comics biographers of old masters or more recent artists—and this also applies when real-life painters feature in fictional comics—one of the most problematic is how best to quote the paintings and integrate them into the narrative. Quotation can take various forms. My intention in this paper is to try to identify them, to interrogate what it means to quote from a painting, and to address a few of the theoretical points thereby raised.

Although I will focus on biographies, I will not restrict myself to them. Instead, I will broaden my study to take in more examples of dialogue between comics and paintings, in comics of other kinds. A radical solution consists, of course, in getting around the obstacle by not showing any paintings at all. This is more or less what happens in the series Pablo by Julie Birmant and Clément Oubrerie (four volumes from 2012 to 2014, respectively entitled Max JacobApollinaireMatisse, and Picasso), which received a very favorable critical reception. The narrator is Fernande, Picasso’s first mistress and muse. As an elderly woman, she recalls her memories, resurrecting the artistic milieu that Picasso frequented in his youth. The main topics dealt with in this tetralogy include Montmartre, the bohemian lifestyle, and Picasso’s love affairs. The authors also mention Catalonia and the worlds of the circus and bullfighting as sources of inspiration for the master.

But Picasso’s artistic production is left out. In the first three volumes (which cover the “blue” period, 1901-1904, and the “pink” period, 1904-1906), his paintings are excluded or reduced to tiny doodles, with no attempt at any resemblance to the actual works. In the fourth volume, Picasso is working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and this masterwork is the only painting that is represented with any degree of accuracy. Picasso has found his way at this point, and the authors claim that, with this painting, “a myth was born.”

I am willing to accept that Pablo focuses on “Picasso before he was famous,” as Clément Oubrerie writes on his blog. He clarifies: “the subject is not his painting but who he is, what he lives through, how all this influences his art.” But in the first years of the century, even if he had not yet become famous, Picasso was nonetheless already a first-rate painter who had produced masterpieces. The comics series does not make that clear; in it, Pablo overshadows Picasso. It is odd that nobody raised this point in a unanimously positive critical reception.

We find the same strategy in the Gauguin album by Patrick Weber and Nicoby. Throughout the book, the paintings are absent, either because the canvas is blank or viewed from an angle that does not allow us to see the work, or the framing is so tight that we see only the brush strokes, not the whole picture. Here again, only one painting, Self Portrait with a Yellow Christ from 1891, is represented in a more precise way, although it is a free composition and not the accurate reproduction of the work in its original frame. The fact that the authors of the comic have chosen a self-portrait is by no means insignificant: the choice indicates that they are mainly interested in Gauguin’s personality and life, and not in his artistic work.

Fundamentally, it is perhaps not all that surprising that comics depicts painters but not their work: has the medium not already accustomed us to reporters (like Tintin) who never write a word or go near a newspaper office and to sailors (like Corto Maltese) who hardly ever set sail? Comics has a declarative force: if it is stated that a character exercises one profession or another, then this becomes true, and there is no need for any further proof. However, biographical albums refer not to fictional characters but to real-life figures, whose artistic output is attested.

If we leave aside these atypical cases, we can say that the modes of quotation of a painting can, roughly speaking, be divided into three categories. By order of decreasing faithfulness to the original these are: 1) The insertion into the comics narrative of a faithful reproduction of the original work, such as the photographical reproductions of the original painted works in Robin’s Le Fils de Rembrandt [Rembrandt’s Son] (2) The production of a pastiche, or the fake rendering of a painting ‘in the style of the artist,’ like the paintings attributed to Van Gogh in Gradimir Smudja’s book Vincent et Van Gogh and its sequel Trois lunes [Three Moons] that look more or less like the works of the Dutch master, or the works of the Italian Quattrocento quoted in La Vision de Bacchus [Bacchus’s Vision], by Jean Dytar. (3) A more distant approximation, or a free interpretation of a painting, such as those produced in the album Moderne Olympia by Catherine Meurisse, copublished by Futuropolis and the Musée d’Orsay. Not a biography of any one painter, it transforms Manet’s “Olympia” into a heroine who goes around totally naked throughout the book (apart from the ribbon around her neck), just as Manet portrayed her in 1863 in a painting that has become one of the most famous in the Musée d’Orsay. Meurisse quotes works by Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Degas, Courbet, and Van Gogh, but also Gérôme, Ingres, Bouguereau or Meissonier, sometimes without acknowledgement, reinterpreting them in her own rapid, sketchy, cartoony style. She thus leaves it up to readers to recognize the works (if they can).

It appears that all three options (reproduction, pastiche, reinterpretation) raise a number of difficulties. Before discussing them, however, we need to ask: what is the fundamental difference between a painting and a comics panel? This is not only a matter of technique and appearance; there are many other relevant considerations, including size, medium, and materials used, circulation, value, and reception by the audience and, finally, degree of autonomy (a painting stands alone whereas a comics panel enters into a system of proliferation, and is always associated with other images). In relation to most of these criteria, a painting, in comparison to a comics panel, is on the side of more. Its medium is nobler. It is larger. Its artistic, symbolic and commercial value is considered to be higher. Its autonomy and its aura are very much superior. The question then becomes: when a comics creator quotes a famous painting, is it possible for him or her to do so without diminishing it and trivialising it?

To begin addressing the issue, let us examine the crucial question of format. There is, generally speaking, a marked difference in scale between a painting and a comics panel. Enclosing a painting within a panel is surely in itself a way of distorting, if not the image, then, at the very least, the object. How can the monumental dimension of the painting be preserved when its surface area is so drastically reduced?

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters adopt an effective strategy in La Tour [The Tower], the fourth album in the series entitled Les Cités obscures [Cities of the Fantastic]. The unexpected appearance of the paintings on the thirty-seventh page is a major event. In a large panel, the size of the two characters relative to that of the hall indicates the massive proportions of the paintings, very much like the tapestries that used to decorate the walls of ancient castles.

Figure 1: La Tour, p. 37

The fifth painting in front of which the two characters stand occupies almost the whole width of a large horizontal panel, with a very unusual half-page format, banishing the two men to the periphery of the frame. “This is what our tower looks like. Or at least, this is what it should look like,” Elias says to Giovanni. Indeed, neither of them has ever been able to gaze upon the tower from the outside and, as he walks through it, Giovanni has access only to fragmented views. Thus the painting is a global image that recapitulates the world inside which both men live.

In addition to their size, the paintings that burst onto the pages of La Tour also stand out because they are in color in a story world that has hitherto been restricted to black and white. Suddenly, all the magic, all the aura, all the power of the painted works is underlined. Although they are “reinterpretations of great works of the western artistic tradition,” as Alice Richir has emphasized, their distinctiveness is maintained and even accentuated.

There is also a metanarrative dimension in the painting inspired by Brueghel’s Tower of Babel: the comics panels are no more than splinters, fragments of a diegetic world that readers can never contemplate in its entirety. Here, the painting takes the exact place of this ultimate referent, always hidden and therefore somewhat mythical. This detour through another medium is necessary to reveal what a comic is supposedly unable to show.1

Creating tension between black and white and color is a solution that although effective, has not been pursued in our corpus of comics biographies of painters. Instead, certain cartoonists have devised alternative solutions in order to preserve and accentuate the monumental dimension of the paintings.

Jean Dytar, the author of La Vision de Bacchus [Bacchus’ Vision], enables us to share in the lives of a few Venitian masters of the Quattrocento, in particular Antonello da Messina, who is in search of the perfect painting. Dytar minutely documents the world of art during that period, pausing over its various aspects. His narrative touches upon questions of technique—in particular, perspective, composition, pigments, and the use of the camera obscura—and portrays the economic and social life of the painters, their studio setup, rivalries among artists, and relationships with clients and patrons. Even so, throughout the book, he keeps us at a distance from the works. They are almost always shown far in the background, looking very much like miniatures.

In 2014, Benjamin Lacombe and Paul Echegoyen published Léonard & Salaï, depicting the character of Leonardo da Vinci through the special relationship he had with his young disciple, model, and most probably lover. Lacombe does not hesitate to copy and produce pastiches of Leonardo’s paintings. When they are integrated into the narrative, the paintings are viewed from a certain distance, as in Dytar’s book. They operate only as reminders of works that are assumed to be familiar to everyone. But the authors choose to create an impression of the actual size and the aura of the major works by presenting them on whole-page splash panels interpolated into the book. In the first volume, The Last SupperThe Virgin and Child with St Anne, and Mona Lisa receive this treatment, a point I will return to shortly.

The inclusion of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the fourth volume of the series Pablo breaks with the pattern established in the previous volumes. Here, Birmant and Oubrerie proceed in two phases: first the reader sees the painting from some distance away, while Picasso works on it, inspired by the African sculptures he has just discovered during a visit to the ethnographic museum; then, after the page is turned, the painting is presented in a larger-scale version, within a panel of unusual size, in which the painter is making a gesture with his left hand as if he were trying to hide his work.

Figure 2:Pablo

This two-part presentation, where the format of the painting changes, can be analysed as a well-thought-out mise en scène, staging the manifestation of this famous work as if it were an epiphany of the art of painting.

Having considered the differences between paintings and comics panel, we will look more closely at the three options identified above in relation to the question of resemblance to the original. In the first case, that of photographic reproductions, as in Le Fils de Rembrandt [Rembrandt’s Son] by Robin, the gap between the paintings and the cartoonist’s own graphic style is maximal. Black surfaces or grey tones are eliminated from Robin’s style, which is based on simplified, rapid, and forceful line drawing. By contrast, the photographs of Rembrandt’s works are dark and, although they do not render the colors accurately, they nevertheless evoke the pictorial and dramatic aspects of the original paintings, in particular their characteristic use of chiaroscuro.

This mode of quotation falls into the category that Elisabeth El Refaie has called heterosemiosis (21-39). As in The Photographer by Guibert, Lefèvre, and Lemercier, which mixes photographic images with drawn images, Robin’s book combines signs of different types. But there is an important difference between these two works. In The Photographer, photos and drawings take turns to deliver a narrative presented as the testimony of a lived experience. Even if the two kinds of pictures do not have the same authenticating power, they somehow get close, since the cartoonist, just as much as the photographer, aims to be as faithful to the truth as possible, and because photographs and drawings are visual statements that are equal partners in the same narrative process. Conversely, in Le Fils de Rembrandt, the photos are externally sourced; they belong to another dimension and designate something very specific and quite different from the drawings. There is a break between the world of “life” and the world of art. The paintings that we can see Rembrandt working on or those that he shows his son seem to emerge from some deep night; they have something ghostly, supranatural about them. Through heterosemiosis, attention is called to the painted surface, shown in its difference, within a world that follows the conventions of comics. It is noteworthy that the canvases are systematically drawn in perspective rather than from the front, which emphasizes their materiality, not just as images but also as objects existing in a three-dimensional world.

The second case, pastiche, unlike photographic reproduction, involves, if only implicitly, a certain boastfulness: “See, I can do as well as such and such a great artist admired by everyone; it is not so difficult, after all.” Dytar and Smudja are both very skillful imitators. The former explains:

I copied and adapted all the paintings that I include in the book, in order to integrate them into my pages. Technically, I made wash drawings with walnut stain, more or less the size of the panels, then I used the computer to add the transparent colours. Sometimes I modified the colours when it proved necessary for the general harmony of the page, or I omitted a few details, but the idea was to remain as faithful as possible to the original works, without disrupting the reading experience. (qtd. in Detournay)

In La Vision de Bacchus, the works of the Italian masters are, for the most part, shown from a distance. When, as an exception, the painting is more tightly framed (see page 9, panel 4), it remains, as we can see, in the same range of colors as the other panels. Like them, it is dominated by brown, beige, and blue-grey. However, the painting differs from the panels because there is no outline, so that it looks slightly blurred and vaporous. A frontier is thus demarcated: whereas the line typifies comics, color defines painting.

We are thus confronted with an implicit reactivation of the old theoretical opposition between drawing and colour, which runs through the whole history of painting. Writing about this opposition, Jacqueline Lichtenstein has observed that it is more relevant “to the understanding and analysis of discourses about painting than to the analysis of the actual works” (519). Nevertheless, “whether we are talking about Raphael and Titian in the Sixteenth Century, Poussin and Rubens in the Seventeenth, Chardin and David in the Eighteenth, or Ingres and Delacroix in the Nineteenth, every era [had] its painters who, in the eyes of the critics, [personified] the conflict between drawing and colour, until modern painters such as Degas or Cézanne forced us to ask what this centuries-old opposition really meant” (ibid.). However, this opposition did not emerge until the Sixteenth Century. During the Quattrocento—the century that Dytar is concerned with—this theory had not yet been elaborated, even if we may think that Florentine painters favoured il disegno and that Venitian painters gave primacy to il colore. It is the confrontation of fine art with comics that tends to designate drawing as a characteristic of the second and color as the very substance of the first.

Jean-Michel Renault is responsible for an early example of the genre, La vie de Salvador Dalí (1986), an album that was copublished by Robert Laffont and Daniel Briand in the short-lived collection “Une vie une œuvre” [“A Life, a Work”]. The co-writer of the book, Robert Descharnes (a former secretary of Dalí) had been looking for “an artist capable of illustrating Dalí without betraying him,” that is, capable of competing with him on a technical level. Renault, in turn, was indeed motivated by the idea of “measuring himself against” the surrealist painter (46).

Although Dalí had a fevered imagination, his technique, in contrast, was classical. Dalí claimed to be an anti-modern painter, very keen to revive an artistic tradition, or a savoir-faire. He was proud of using in his paintings “the illusionism of the most abjectly arriviste and irresistible imitative art, the usual paralysing tricks of trompe-l’œil…” (qtd. in Shanes). Renault takes up this technique, producing remarkably accurate and skilled gouache miniatures on paper. It seems that a skillful producer of pastiche almost always yields to the temptation of letting the style of the artist in question contaminate the whole book. Dalí, as a character in Renault’s graphic novel, is rendered in the same way as Gala, a character in Dalí’s paintings. Reading this drawn biography is almost like entering a Dalí painting and staying inside it until the last page. The cartoonist seems to be telling us: “If Dalí had decided to tell the story of his own life in comics, the result might have looked like this.”

The case of Gradimir Smudja is just as interesting. Born in Belgrade, he moved to Switzerland in the Eighties where he worked for an art dealer who asked him to produce replicas of the works of the great impressionist masters. This enforced copying helped him develop the pictorial technique that he would later, from 2003, transfer to his comics. His first book was Vincent et Van Gogh and, the year following its publication, he started work on a tetralogy about Toulouse-Lautrec, Le Bordel des muses [The Brothel of the Muses] (later retitled Le Cabaret des muses [The Cabaret of the Muses]). To date, he has produced approximately ten albums, the majority devoted to the world of fine art and executed with the same watercolor technique and the same warm, rainbow-colored palette.

Even if Smudja does not exactly reproduce the strokes or the rhythmic dabs of the paintbrush so characteristic of Van Gogh, or the specific style of any other particular painter, it is not easy for the reader to distinguish between pictorial quotation and pure invention because all the panels have the look of a “period piece.” Both Renault and Smudja started their careers as caricaturists, publishing satirical portraits in the press. It is thus conceivable that someone who has trained their eye to detect the most salient physical characteristics of their models in order to exaggerate them would also be predisposed to observe the stylistic features characteristic of a particular painter, and to reproduce them.

It is evident that for skilled creators of pastiche, faithfulness to form does not guarantee respect for biographical truth nor for the integrity of works of art. Indeed, the opposite holds true: most often, the author takes surprising liberties, as if pictorial mimicry were precisely a means of smuggling in racy images or even far-fetched narrative developments. Jean-Michel Renault has explained:

Sometimes I have combined two or three different paintings into one single picture. Elsewhere, I have associated statements by Dalí with pictures that he could have conceived, but that do not actually exist. (…) Let us take the first page of the album as an example. Dalí frequently uses the image of the egg to refer to intra-uterine life. So I started with that motif: I represented Dalí curled up in fœtal position inside an egg yolk; and a trickle of white from the same egg reveals the image of his dead brother, whom Dalí resembled like a twin. The egg allowed me to associate two of Dalí’s very important obsessions.

If we turn to Smudja’s album about Vincent Van Gogh, we’ll see that it is no more than a farcical sketch, a spoof based on a bizarre premise. The Van Gogh that we meet in the narrative is an expert in fine art, but a bad painter. One day, he takes in a cat who turns out to have the power of speech and is, in fact, a genius who, just as in a fairy tale, has taken on the appearance of a feline. He uses his claws to rip the mediocre works painted by his master, and so reveals to him a different technique, the secret of the very distinct brushstroke that will make him famous. The reader expects that Van Gogh will simply take advantage of this lesson, but the story gets more and more unlikely: according to Smudja’s tale, it is the cat himself who created some 1800 paintings, the complete œuvre of the man with the severed ear.

Our third case, free evocation, can be exemplified by the work of Catherine Meurisse, but other comics are also noteworthy for their remarkable deviation from the original works, some of which are completely at odds with the artist’s style. Frida Kahlo, une biographie surréelle [Frida Kahlo, A Surreal Biography], by Marco Corona, and Matisse Manga by Christophe Girard are both in black and white, a stylistic choice that may appear as a flagrant misinterpretation, since the works of Kahlo and Matisse are particularly colorful. The book about Matisse is a learning resource that was commisioned by the Matisse museum in Nice, and it seems that the cartoonist was directed to produce the book in black and white by the Matisse estate, who feared confusion between his drawings and the original works. The curator of the museum, Marie-Thérèse Pulvenis de Séligny, explains that “black and white allows for formal qualities to be recorded, and does not compete with the original. The reader is given an interpretation of the work that awakens his or her curiosity” (Foreword).

After the graphic novel that Corona devoted to her, Frida Kahlo has also inspired a duo, Jean-Luc Cornette and Flore Balthazar, whose biopic was published in 2015 by Delcourt. At first, the works of the Mexican artist are shown from a distance, but remain recognizable. Every motif is reduced to a sort of pictogram that identifies it. When, on page 63, the reader can at last get a closer view of the paintings, they can see that the authors have turned Kahlo into a sort of “clear line” painter and that, paradoxically, the colours of her paintings are more faded than those of the surrounding panels.

Figure 3: Frida Khalo p. 63

Moreover, the book does not quote any of the very striking works in which Kahlo expressed her physical suffering. Similarly, the critic Jessie Bi has rightly observed of Alberto G., the graphic novel that Éric Lambé and Philippe de Pierpont devoted to Giacometti, that the drawing is simple and purified, whereas Giacometti’s drawings and paintings are a tangle of reworked lines.

For a particularly infelicitous example of stylistic divergence, we can return to Léonard et Salaï, by Benjamin Lacombe and Paul Echegoyen. The Leonardo paintings are in full color and stand out from the ordinary panels in the rest of the book, which are treated in a homogeneous sepia tone. This distinctive feature is effective as long as the works are seen from a distance. But, as I have already mentioned, the authors choose to show us the major works again in the form of large silent splash pages. And it seems that Lacombe had the ludicrous idea of reinterpreting Leonardo’s masterpieces in his own style, while still imitating the technique. This results in hybrid images that, in my view, are both ugly and scandalous because they distort and undermine the originals.

Lacombe gives all the characters the big eyes that are characteristic of his own drawing style. The images look like sentimental religious souvenirs, on the verge of kitsch. They are all the more ridiculous because, by displaying them on these oversized panels that magnify them, he implicitly confers a special value upon them. He clearly believes himself to be a skilled forger when, in fact, his betrayal of the originals is flagrant.

The various examples that I have commented on so far have established that the quotation of paintings within a comic is always problematic. As a picture quoted in an enunciative system made up of other images, the painting always resists to some extent, and the cartoonist, as well as having to deal with the question of the format, necessarily betrayed, must make up his or her mind in relation to two alternatives. Firstly, the artist must decide whether to be faithful or unfaithful to the outward appearance of the works being quoted and, secondly, whether to merge them into the visual flow of the narrative or, instead, to create a stylistic discrepancy that underlines a difference of status. It is not only a matter of finding the right technical solutions, but of deciding what sort of confrontation he or she wants to provoke between comics and fine art, what sort of dialogue he or she wishes to initiate, and what perspective he or she chooses to adopt.

I would like to quit the biographical genre and make a detour via the work of the German cartoonist Jens Harder. In Alpha… directions (2009) and its sequel Beta… civilisations (first volume in 2014), Harder recounts the history of life and of the first human societies by quoting pictures from many different origins. He creates as few original drawings as possible. Indeed, 95% of the panels are quotations of already existing visuals borrowed, with no hierarchy of legitimacy or provenance, from a wide variety of sources: cave paintings, old masters, illustrations, panels from other comics, maps, diagrams, photographs, stills from movies, computer animations, etc. Paintings by old masters (Bosch, Botticelli, Bruegel, Cranach, Dürer, Michelangelo, Leonardo) appear alongside the work of Hergé, Uderzo, Disney, and lesser-known figures from contemporary pop culture, and all sorts of other pictures that have no pretention to the status of art. From a formal point of view, nothing distinguishes them. Given that none of the quoted pictures are reproduced in their original state—the cartoonist redraws them all, with the imprint of his own hand—Harder confers a certain homogeneity upon this gigantic kaleidoscope.

In fact, Harder quotes the paintings not for their own sake, but rather because they partake, along with other pictures, in a given thematic paradigm. For instance, in Alpha, when readers identify the quotation from Magritte (80), they understand that only the iconographical motif of the moon is relevant here, since the whole sequence (which started on the previous page) is about our satellite. Magritte enters into a dialogue with Jules Verne, the Apollo mission, and Michelangelo, quoted in the panel above in the form of a fragment of the fresco from the Sistine Chapel in which God, on the third and fourth days of the Creation, brings the Sun, the Moon, and the planets into being. On one page, Harder sums up several subjects: how the moon was created (according to the Bible), how it shines light upon us, how it haunts our imagination, and how it was conquered.

When Harder quotes one of the 31 paintings produced by Lucas Cranach the Elder on the topic of the fall of Adam and Eve, it becomes more obvious that the subject of the painting has been displaced.(Alpha 309) Adam and Eve are not the key figures any more, as one can see from their reframing at shoulder level.

Figure 4: Alpha 309

Far more important are the animals surrounding them, at their feet, used to illustrate the species that survived the flood. Harder takes a double liberty here: a secondary motif of the painting becomes primary, and the placement of the whole episode is shifted within the chronology of the Book of Genesis.

Harder’s reframing can be even more severe. When he quotes Spring by Botticelli, among the eight characters represented on this large horizontal panel, he keeps only the three graces, and they owe their selection to the—indeed—graceful way in which their hands are clasped. (Beta… 84) The three female dancing characters appear next to two male musicians, the Harlequin and Pierrot by André Derain. Together, these characters illustrate the various uses of the hand, which is the paradigm Harder develops here, over three pages.

This is, then, a cartoonist who takes the liberty of committing several rather violent acts against the paintings he quotes. Harder redraws them; robs them of their identity by mixing them with more prosaic or profane pictures; reframes them every time he finds it necessary; redefines their subject; and brings out one chosen motif, which takes on a new meaning within a different context. Of course, the choice of a particular painting because it contains the sought-after motif is always very arbitrary, since many other paintings would have been equally suitable. For instance, the quotation of the painting from the Fontainebleau School dipicting Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters in the bath is motivated by the topic of motherhood and breastfeeding. (Alpha… 313) It is thus only because of the delicately gripped nipple that the painting has been selected by Harder and finds a place here. However, it is clear that the same painting also could have illustrated the motif of the hand just as well as Botticelli’s Spring.

The game that the cartoonist plays by drawing on a very extensive repertoire of western painting is played out on various symbolic levels. First, Harder confirms the canonical status of the works he selects. The fact that he does not include the simplest caption shows that he is confident in the capacity of most readers to recognize them. Second, he uses them as pictures in the first instance, and only secondarily as works of art. In the context of the book, the paintings interest him more for what they show than for their pictorial qualities. Third, by creating parallels with arts from other civilizations, Harder inserts the paintings into the wider history of human representations, of human imagination. Lastly, in this grand visual recapitulation, art is not separated from science, techniques, or everyday life; it is deprived of its sacred aura and appears as one expression of human activity, among others.

There is no doubt that the “Grand Narrative” by Harder, inaugurated with Alpha… and Beta… and with two more volumes forthcoming, is a comic with a very special and atypical modus operandi. However, more classic comics have used other means to incorporate the paintings that they quote into the narrative, to ensure that they are not grafted onto it like foreign bodies, but rather play a real part in it.

Thirty years ago, in an article I wrote together with Thierry Smolderen, we observed that, when they use stand-alone pictures like paintings, cartoonists often try to narrow the gap between the living panel that does the quoting and the lifeless frame that is being quoted. There are several ways to narrativise a painting. In his La Vision de Bacchus, Dytar recreates the genesis of a painting by Antonello da Messina, “Il Condottiere” [“Portrait of a Man”] (1475, oil on a wooden panel, 35 x 38 cm, Musée du Louvre). He is interested in the creative process as much as in the final result, and audaciously reconstructs the execution of the painting in a series of six panels showing every step from the first sketch to the final state. The painting is thereby situated within a sequential, evolving framework, with each stage accorded the status of a panel. It is integrated into the narrative web of the comic.

Elements of a plot can also be introduced into a painting by the device of false attribution. In his graphic novel, Le Rapport de Brodeck [Brodeck’s Report] (after the novel by Philippe Claudel), Manu Larcenet tells the story of the murder by the people of a small village of a stranger who arrives a few months after the end of a war to settle in their midst, with mysterious intentions. The man proves to be a painter. To thank the population for their welcome, he organizes an exhibition of the works he has produced since his arrival: portraits of the inhabitants and of the surrounding landscape. The paintings are first covered up and the moment when the artist publicly unveils them is the starting point of a 4-page sequence, almost entirely silent (volume 2, p. 137-140), where fragments of about ten of the exhibited paintings are reproduced without comment. These fragments are, in fact, taken from existing paintings. Larcenet has explained: “The first one is a self portrait by Cézanne, who has been my idol since I was 17. For me he is one of the greatest painters of all. I redrew it in charcoal, and I wrecked works by my childhood idols: Caravaggio, Pissarro…” (Radio Interview). To these names must be added those of Rembrandt and Van Gogh (the painters quoted are listed at the end of the book). The exhibition is thus a digest of the best of art history, an anthology of the works that mean the most to the cartoonist. But, despite the fame of the artists, the works concerned are not as iconic as those chosen by Harder. They are not immediately recognizable, and Larcenet homogenises the style of the various painters by redrawing their works identically in charcoal. For these two reasons, the attribution to an imaginary character is plausible and acceptable.

The villagers destroy the exhibition. The stranger is called the Anderer (the Other) and, in Larcenet’s mind, he personifies the misunderstood artist. But, is it not possible that there is another, less obvious, way of interpreting this story? Is it not fine art that is the other of comic strip art and, as such, something that it cannot assimilate?

Narrativising a painting often also involves a process of animation, of metamorphosis as when the characters of the narrative are allowed to enter the painting, as if by magic. One of the best-known cases in this category is the comics album Le Fantôme espagnol [The Spanish Ghost] by the Flemish cartoonist Willy Vandersteen. Bob, Bobette, and Lambique contemplate the famous Noces villageoises [Village Wedding Feast] by Bruegel. As if he wishes to punish Lambique for criticising the painting, the boy in the foreground throws a plate of rice pudding in his face, and, with this metaleptic gesture, annihilates the conventional gap between the animated and the inanimated, between two-dimensional representation and what is supposed to be reality. Soon after, the three protagonists penetrate into the painting and find themselves in the Sixteenth Century, where their adventures last for 69 weeks. Bruegel’s painting is the threshold of their adventure.

In the same way, Edouard, the hero of Edouard – La Réserve, a comic by Jean-Pierre Pichard and Georges Andrevon, passes in front of a reproduction of the “Turkish Bath” by Ingres, when he is addressed by the voluptuous courtesans, and then penetrates, one foot after the other, into the picture. This is the start of his journey through the pictorial work of the French master.

In both cases, the painting is like a window opening onto another space time. If the painter sees it as a surface, the cartoonist, for his part, sees it as an entrance, a passage towards a world that can be inhabited or, at least, visited. The comic strip author thereby proves that he is not only a creator of pictures, but first and foremost a creator of universes.

Sometimes, it is only in the imagination or in a dream sequence that the world evoked by the painting is penetrated. For instance, in Les Variations d’Orsay [The Orsay variations] by Manuele Fior, an attendant working for the Musée d’Orsay falls asleep in her chair and, in her dream, identifies with the snake charmer who appears in the famous painting by Douanier Rousseau (1907), a work that she is supposed to guard all day long. Almost 40 pages further on, we meet her again, walking naked through the museum’s reserve collection, accompanied by her snakes and by the black panther that has also emerged out of the work of the naïve painter. Living in intimate daily contact with this masterpiece has led her to be haunted by it, even in her dreams. But, of course, any encounter, any tête à tête with a figurative painting can activate a reverie of this kind.

Painted characters are ghosts, phantasmae. Fior’s graphic novel is indeed nothing but a phantasmagoria, in which characters appearing in famous paintings come to life and move around in the real world, mingling with their creators. Thus, one of the Repasseuses [Women Ironing] painted by Degas becomes the painter’s mistress and shares an attic room with him. And this is the final way to narrativise a painting: to take the motifs and the characters literally, au pied de la lettre, and use them as elements of a composite universe in which they have the same ontological status as elements from present or past reality, or as elements taken from other arts, or other media.

Based on the evidence of the first two volumes published, this seems to be precisely the editorial line of the new collection co-published by Futuropolis and the Musée d’Orsay. As a matter of fact, in the inaugural book — the aforementioned Modern Olympia, by Catherine Meurisse — the cartoonist takes advantage of the double sense of the French word toile, which can mean both a painting and a film, and she deliberately confuses the laws of two very different worlds: the world of fine art and the world of the movie industry. Her Olympia is a young actress full of ambition. She is always an extra but she dreams of leading parts and wishes to equal, if not overshadow, Venus, the star of the “Orsay Studios.” In the course of the book, scenes from famous musicals like West Side Story or Singing in the Rain are mixed with the most famous paintings of the museum. Olympia “acts” in the paintings like an actress would play a role in a film. She is very proud to have been asked to act in Courbet’s L’Origine du monde [The Origin of the World], presented as an art painting (as we would speak of an art-house film) but, on the last page of the story, we learn that she was only a stand-in for the leg.

To conclude this paper, I will say that comics like to measure themselves against painting, and do not fear to shake their rival up, to take away its aura, even to insult it or subject it to the most extravagant fantasies. Behind these outrages, we can nevertheless perceive an implicit tribute, a real reverence for admired and inspiring works of art. For a cartoonist, a painting is something like an artistic ideal and, also, “a zone of resistance that must be overcome or contaminated by any possible means” (Groensteen and Smolderen 97). In the best cases, this leads to a creative tension. When they are confronted with this other form of visual art, cartoonists make a statement about painting; however, at the same time, they always, necessarily, make a statement about their own medium: comic art.


[1] In 1987, Schuiten published a lithograph entitled The Paintings, where the giant scale of the canvases was increased, and the characters of Giovanni and Milena seem to be threatened by the works surrounding them.

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